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Online learning will unfortunately not benefit everyone

Life as we know it has ceased to exist. We now live for Health Minister Zweli Mkhize’s statements on the number of people that have tested positive for Covid-19. 

In WhatsApp groups, at least mine, most of our conversations are around the virus, our anxieties and fears. 

Sure, the government has said that we should not panic. But with the rate and speed with which the coronavirus disease is spreading in the country it is only human nature to panic. 

We have had to put plans on hold. To offer some small personal examples, my best friend’s baby shower in April has been called off. One of my friends was meant to graduate in April but that will not be happening anymore. 

These celebrations can happen at a later stage; what is crucial now is that everyone is safe and healthy. 

It has been encouraging to see how our government has shown true leadership during this time of uncertainty and fear in our country. 

This moment in the history of our country has shown that, when in the eye of the storm, our government can really put its people first and work hard for their good. 

For example, since President Cyril Ramaphosa announced school closures, the different provincial departments of education have worked hard to make sure that they put together lessons for learners that they can access online and through radio broadcasts. 

The department of basic education created a one-stop-shop programme on its website where learners can access online lessons. The lessons are for Grade R up to Grade 12 learners. 

This is a positive message that conveys, “Yes, we are in the middle of a terrifying period, but that does not mean that learning needs to stop.” 

Several universities have also announced plans of moving their teaching and learning to online platforms so that their students are not entirely left behind with their studies during this time. 

However, no matter how excellent these interventions of online learning for both learners and students are, they will sadly not benefit everyone. 

For one, data is expensive in South Africa and even people who can afford it still bemoan how ridiculously high data costs are. 

Online interventions are most likely going to benefit children of the middle class and the rich. Children who live in homes that survive on social grants or those from working-class families will lose out. 

It is the same with university students. Not all of them will be able to continue with their studies while at home. 

For example, I know that my brother, who is a university student, will not be able to catch up with his studies while at home. 

I can buy my brother data, but what I can afford will probably last him a few days and will not cover him for the weeks he is at home. 

Had it not been for the lockdown my brother would have probably had to go sit at our local mall to access wi-fi and catch up on his studies, or failing that, go camp out outside our local clinic to access wi-fi. 

Lack of internet connection is not only a South African problem. Last week The Economist reported that in America seven million school-age children could not access the internet at home.

E-learning is not only about internet connection. Particularly for learners in lower grades, there needs to be supervision and somebody to assist with the lessons. The reality of our country is that most of these learners are from child-headed households, or they stay with illiterate parents or grandparents who do not understand the curriculum. Undeniably, these learners will be at a disadvantage. 

“Even done properly, online learning is a poor substitute for the kind that happens in a classroom,” Susanna Loeb of Brown University is quoted in The Economist. “On average, students fare worse working online, especially those with less strong academic backgrounds.”

In the end, the students and learners who will not benefit from e-learning will have to wait for catch-up lessons that will hopefully be in place when schools and higher education institutions finally do re-open. 

This pandemic is emphasising the inequality in our societies. 

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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